Night is falling over our family’s ranch, but that ain’t going to stop me from taking the last few shots of the night.
I set the barrel of Daddy’s rifle on the fence line, trace the iron sight against the setting sun, then aim down at the targets we’ve set up in the open field. There's nothing out there but countless yards of dead, yellow grass, and a couple of scarecrows wearing shirts with bullseyes painted on them, wearing dusty old farm hats.
Daddy stands over me, inspecting my every move. There may be a gray beard growing on his black skin, but there’s a youthful sparkle to his brown eyes.
At least, whenever we’re out on the range. Here is where I can really show him what I’m made of. That I’m the sheriff’s daughter…
Daddy presses the stock of the rifle a little closer to my shoulder.
“Now, Sarah,” Daddy says, moving some of my curly hair out of the way, “we ought to braid your hair. Every distraction on a battlefield is a second you could end up…”
Forget the soft brush of my hair, you yapping in my ear is the distraction! I already got the shot lined up!
“Hang on, Daddy,” I murmur, squeezing my right eye shut.
I won’t allow hair or a few words to break my concentration. Nothing ever breaks my focus. I hold my breath, line up the shot right on the target’s chest, and squeeze the trigger.
“Sarah, if the wind blows and hair gets in your eyes, how’re you gonna line up a shot and…”
The echoing sound of the gunshot stops Daddy’s words flat. A murder of crows flies off in the distance, squawking.
Daddy chuckles and leans over the fence, inspecting the hole I blew right through the center of the bullseye. “My lord, sweetie. Not even your brother was shooting this good at your age.”
Nothing like celebrating my 15th birthday by finally having some time together with Daddy!
Truth is, ever since he became sheriff, it’s been hard to get a minute with him. The town of Blackwood is awfully thankful for all that he’s done, though despite all the good that’s come from him, it doesn’t make me miss him any less.
Smoke rises from the gun’s barrel.
Levering the handle under the belly of the rifle, I launch a shell casing out of the chamber. It patters to the ground, landing among the large pile of other casings with a clink.
“Great shot, but it was my last!” I exclaim, watching Daddy’s face grow into a proud smile. “Let’s round up some more bullets while we still have sunlight!”
Daddy fixes the black brick cattleman hat on his head and leans up on the fence post, his hands in his pockets.
“Don’t you think we shot enough today?” he asks, raising a brow.
I shake my head from side to side as fast as I can.
“Heck no! I haven’t even shot that one over there!”
Daddy glances over his shoulder at a massive rifle that’s leaning against a wooden crate covered in bullets and bandoliers.
He rubs a hand through his beard and licks his lips. “Lot of folks will say that a repeating rifle like the one you’re shooting won the war, but the riflemen in my company might say that it was that rifle you’re looking at.”
Daddy’s smile widens and his eyebrows flare. “That there, Sarah, is the Sharps rifle. Single-shot, breech-loading, with a .52 caliber bullet capable of putting down any man at one thousand yards.”
He points to a can he’s got set up on a post, way, way past all the targets. So far out it’s only a little silver dot.
“Could even hit something that far away and that precise, with a Sharps,” Daddy grins.
My heart waltzes inside my chest. Ever since we lost Momma all those years ago, Daddy rarely smiles like this. I rest my head on his shoulder, and he wraps his arm around me.
“We were called Sharpshooters,” Daddy continues, “and were trained to blast away bad men at a range.”
“You miss those days, Daddy? You seem nostalgic over it.”
Daddy’s body rumbles as he laughs. “No! I don’t miss it. It was quite a different time, then. Violent. We fought for the lives we have today. The life I can give you.”
Daddy kisses my forehead.
“Well,” he says, “I suppose I do miss your mother. She had your smile, you know. And hair even curlier, if you can believe it.”
I close my eyes, trying the best I can to picture her face. Stunning, beautiful, and kind.
“I remember,” I mumble.
“If she was still around,” Daddy says, forcing a big exhalation through his nose, “she’d be so incredibly proud of you. I know I am.”
A tear forms in the corner of my eye.
“Thank you, Daddy.”
Shaking his head, Daddy gives me a big hug. “No, thank you. You and your brother are our treasures. It’s why we fought so hard. It’s why we moved out here.”
I can feel Daddy’s jaw trembling on top of my head. He’s holding back tears.
“You can cry, you know,” I tell him softly.
“Course,” Daddy replies, wiping a tear from his eye. “But you can’t shoot if you’re shaking from squeezin’ out tears.”
He reaches inside his holster, pulls out a six-shooter pistol, and spins it around his hand so the wooden handle is facing me.
“Happy birthday, sweetie.”
My jaw drops. My own gun?
“Circumstance claimed your mother,” Daddy says, his chin raised, and another tear streaking down his cheek. “But any child of mine is gonna know how to protect themselves.”
Jumping up and down with joy, my heart beats fast like the hooves of a racing horse. I grab the gun’s handle and feel its comfortable weight in my palm. “For me? Really?”
“That’s right,” Daddy replies, propping a knee up on the fence. “Now come on and pepper off a few shots. Your brother Kalen is cooking up a nice dinner for you, and we got company.”
I aim down the iron sights of the pistol. Stars twinkle in the purple, blue, and orange twilight.
“Company?” I ask, excited.
“A young man will be joining us. I’m considering him for deputy.”
The pistol recoils back in my hand as I take my first shot, knocking the hat off the target. Daddy claps.
“Deputy, huh?” I ask, a lurking sense of dread creeping up in the bottom of my belly.
Please don’t tell me my birthday celebration is gonna turn into another night of Daddy’s work.
I pinch the hammer down and the chamber rolls to the right, loading up another bullet. I fire once, then a second time.
Both shots take off the stick arms of the target. But damn, does this gun feel amazing!
“Looks like we got a natural,” my brother’s voice says behind me.
Kalen appears, his hair braided and slicked down the back of his head, and his finest white shirt and tie on.
“Supper’s almost done, and I reckon that company will arrive soon,” Kalen says.
He pats me on the back and leans up on the other side of the fence.
My palm sweats. Now I need to impress both Daddy and him!
“Let’s see what you got, Sarah,” Kalen chuckles, pointing to the farthest target in the back. He turns to Daddy. “You tell her to braid her hair, or at least wear a hat…”
I pop a shot off and bullseye the target while Kalen and Daddy share a laugh.
“So who’s this feller joining us?” I ask, shooting the hat off the target I just blasted.
Daddy replies, “Name’s Jude. Jude Price.”
My heart stops and I fumble my shot. There was no sixth bullet loaded, and if there was, it would’ve whizzed off far into the field.
“J-Jude Price?” I ask, thinking of the handsome fellow my age I’d seen in town a few times.
We’d passed by each other once in the general store. I was buying candy, and he was buying a can of peaches.
Jude nodded his hat toward me and let me check out first. A true rugged cowboy of a gentleman! Now he’s coming over. I need to freshen up. Wash the gunpowder off my fingers.
Kalen taps a finger on the top of the pistol. “Curious why there’s no sixth bullet?”
I bat my eyes and through some big breaths ask, “Why?”
“Open up the cylinder,” Daddy says.
The two smile like they know something I don’t.
As instructed, I open up the cylinder to find a five-dollar bill rolled inside where a bullet should be.
“Happy birthday,” Kalen says, giving me a quick hug. “We call that a saddle blanket. Always keep a dollar in your first chambered round for a good night on the town.”
“It’s true,” Daddy confirms. “Never keep your first shot chambered with a bullet. You ever tap the hammer in your holster, you’ll put a hole through your foot.”
“Speaking of boots,” Kalen says.
We all turn to face the sound of rattling spurs moving toward us. All breath leaves my body. The handsome, smiling face of Jude Price is staring back at me.